Lalgarh and the Radicalisation of Resistance: From ‘Ordinary Civilians’ to Political Subjects?

One image stands out from the Lalgarh resistance.  Chattradhar Mahato, the most visible leader of the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA), distributing food to ordinary villagers — not as a high-up leader doing charity but as one among them.  Is this the ‘new’ image of the Maoist?  But maybe Mahato is not a Maoist — he himself denies being one.  But if he is not, given his power and influence in the area, the ‘dictatorial’ Maoists must have eliminated him by now?  Then maybe he is only being used by them, following their ‘diktat’ out of fear.  But a man with the kind of popularity and love from the masses would fear the Maoists?  So, is he a Maoist, or like a Maoist, after all?  But a Maoist who is this popular among the masses and who does not seem to terrorise them?

These questions are tricky, almost baffling to many.  For the resistance in Lalgarh is a unique experiment, not following any formulaic path or given script.  The Lalgarh resistance not only rattled local power relations and state forces but also challenged accepted ideas and practices of resistance movements, their internal constitution, and above all opened up radical possibilities for the initiative of the masses — partly symbolized in the unscripted image and contested political identity of Mahato and indeed of the PCAPA vis-à-vis Maoists.  Crucially, Lalgarh undermines conventional ideas about the relationship between ‘peaceful’ and ‘violent’ forms of struggle and inaugurates possibilities of resistance unfettered by given notions of political subjectivity or by subservience to the ‘rule of law’.

Lalgarh defied the long-standing shackles on social movements in the country that would ultimately restrict their forms of struggle within the confines given by the lines of command emanating from the Indian state’s monopoly over violence.  Lalgarh showed that, when the democratic struggle of the masses runs into conflict with the repressive apparatus of the state which has lost all democratic legitimacy, the struggle assumes the form of a violent mass movement.  This violent action, being the expression of heightened mass democratic struggle, bringing down structures that anyway have lost all basis, is in every sense a political struggle, an armed struggle if you like, but has nothing to do with a so-called ‘conflict situation’ where ordinary civilians are shown as only trapped and suffering.

Take the violent Dharampur mass action of June 19, an event many on the left and right decried as a Maoist take-over and an end to the democratic struggle.  When this action triggered an offensive by security forces to ‘reclaim’ the area, did the situation turn into a conflict zone between the state and the armed Maoists, with ‘ordinary civilians’ trapped and waiting for outside aid?  This then is the crucial point: Lalgarh refused to lend itself to the usual narrative which presents every armed struggle into a depoliticized ‘conflict situation’ with images of suffering women and children waiting for the international community and NGO aid workers to come and save them.

The image of the ‘ordinary civilian’ here was not one of ‘refusing to take sides’ and rushing to grab the first bit of relief supplies, but one exemplified by someone like Malati.  Clearly showing where her political sympathies lay, Malati stayed on in the PCAPA-run camp and refused the administration’s medical help as she gave birth to a baby — the ambulance waiting for her went back empty (The Statesman, Kolkata, June 30, 2009).  Malati’s ‘humanitarian needs’ were fulfilled by the very struggle which carried out the ‘violent mass action’ — no space for NGOs and the welfarist state, exemplifying the autonomous character of the resistance.  What happened was not just that ‘ordinary civilians’ and adivasis supported the Maoists; the very image of a Maoist underwent a change so that anybody, including women and children, could be a Maoist.

‘Ordinary Civilians’, Maoists

The question then: do ordinary civilians stand opposed to and separate from the Maoists?  This point becomes pertinent from another angle.  Large sections of democratic forces in the country opposing the security-centric solution to the upsurge in Lalgarh proclaim the need to always separate the ordinary villagers/adivasis from the Maoists.  The chief minister, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, is attacked for conflating the two and using the ‘bogey of Maoists’ to victimize ordinary civilians and crush the democratic struggle of the masses.

Lalgarh thus throws several questions: Is the tribal morphing into the Maoist?  Is the groundswell of support for the Maoists such that the adivasis will mostly be Maoists?  In today’s situation, is it possible to be other than Maoist and still assert the kind of political resistance and autonomy that the masses of Lalgarh are presenting today?

The question really is: where and how does the adivasi in resistance stand vis-à-vis the Maoist?  What if the separation of the two is integral to the present statist approach to the Maoists, so central to it that it has to be invented and enforced where one does not exist?  Then, the democratic rights approach calling on the state to make this separation, and spare ‘innocent civilians’, may be a dangerous double-edged sword.

Now what Lalgarh showed is that separating the adivasis from Maoists is no great democratic act, but is in fact what allows the state to undertake severe repression and at the same time claim that it acted in the interests of ordinary civilians.  Thus where this separation cannot be made, the state in fact invents it.  This was clear from the responses of state officials.  When the West Bengal home secretary Ardhendu Sen admitted that “it is tough to distinguish between the PCAPA and the Maoists”, it was clear that the separation does not hold (The Statesman, Kolkata, 19 June 2009).  And yet, even though ordinary people cannot be separated from Maoists, the State chief secretary invented this separation, when he stated, in the same news report, that security forces would “ensure security for ordinary people”.  Further, “he stated that common villagers are not involved directly involved with the violence but they are the victims of the violent activities of the Maoists”.

There were reports of the “Maoists support base in women and children” (The Statesman, 28 June 2009).  This support base meant that state officials could hardly find locals for gathering crucial intelligence inputs about the Maoists after the CPIM network collapsed; a senior state officer was quoted stating that “unless we have local sources, it is going to be extremely difficult to identify the Maoists, who have mingled with the villagers.  Although these (new) men are from Lalgarh, we haven’t got people from the core area.  Those villages are still out of bounds”(The Telegraph, Friday June 26, 2009).

In this light, as in the case of Malati, it is not really the armed Maoist who is most dangerous in Lalgarh; it is the ‘ordinary civilian’, the PCAPA supporter who is indistinguishable form the Maoist supporter.  Is Malati a Maoist?  If she refuses health care offered during her most vulnerable moment, then what is the state supposed to do to win back her support?  If ‘ordinary civilians’ do not want to get out of the ‘conflict situation’, and want to take sides, maybe not in any dramatic manner but at least by wanting to err on the side of the ‘violent Maoists’, then the task of separating the Maoists from the civilians becomes tough — and in fact politically reactionary.

What the state realized in Lalgarh was that if anyone can be a Maoist, and if the separation does not hold, then the way to go, under a democracy, is to technically enforce a ‘separation’.  A technical solution: reports tell us that the security forces in parts of Lalgarh would sprinkle a special kind of an imported dye from a helicopter in areas where Maoists are present.  This dye makes a mark on the skin which stays for almost a year.  Well, now you can clearly separate Maoists from the ‘ordinary civilians’!

Inventing and enforcing a separation therefore allows the state to repress a popular movement in the name of winning over or defending ordinary civilians.  This enforced separation is such that even when the adivasi in Lalgarh stands with the Maoist or is a Maoist it is regarded not as the condition of the adivasi in the given conjuncture, as part of what it means to be an adivasi, his being or life, but negatively understood as the fallout of government policies.  Thus an adivasi Maoist is treated as just waiting to be rescued or won back into the democratic mainstream by benign policies and favours.

Images of Adivasi and Forms of Struggle

Now the Maoist cadre can and must be distinguished from the ‘ordinary villager’ or adivasi.  However some quarters are not just making this distinction but heavily invested in proactively separating the two — trying to understand Lalgarh through it.  This is happening since this separation is sustained by at least two other long established images of the ‘ordinary villager’ and in particular of the adivasi.

In one case, this separation is sustained by presenting a now familiar image of the ordinary villager or adivasi as the victim, the displaced, a negative fallout of the Nehruvian belief in science and industrial development.  In the second case, there is the image of the adivasi resisting ‘modern development and industrialisation’ and engaging in democratic forms of struggle, engaging in non-hierarchical and autonomous welfarist activities outside the state and statist logic.

The first image informs some ‘pro-poor’, welfare policies of the state, for the ‘upliftment of tribals and displaced’, the kinds declared in rehabilitation packages or ‘poverty alleviation’ programmes.  The second one comes from the dissident, anti-state left where being the marginalized and the subaltern (‘outside’ of modernity and capital) in itself is supposed to form the basis of ‘political’ struggle.  These two images, often running counter to each other, however start converging as they get invested in and start deriving their rationale and intensity from their ability to ideologically pit the benign, democracy-loving ‘ordinary villager’ or adivasi against the supposed violence, top-down terror methods and repressive character of the Maoists.

However the events in Lalgarh have shown that this separation pushes back the ‘ordinary villagers’ into political infancy, not allowing them to break with the statist logic and the morass of parliamentary democracy.  For once the ‘ordinary villagers’ or adivasis break with being mere victims and act autonomously as political subjects, they very soon come into conflict with the logic of not just the state but also of oppressive power relations more generally.  Deep-rooted power structures that have found their expression in the abstraction called the state do not fade away progressively through democratic practice and rational deliberation; they exist with a necessity, a knotted base which cannot be untangled unproblematically, without a rupture.

Dharampur marked this rupture where the use of force bringing down the now decrepit power structures was anticipated by the democratic struggle and marked its intensification and qualitative expansion.  From the perspective of the longer struggle, the use of violence at this stage is only a gentle push to bring down terribly weakened but knotty oppressive structure — a push to eliminate the now even more intolerable limits imposed on the democratic practices of the masses.  The mass violence at Dharampur was such an intensification of the autonomous practices of the Lalgarh adivasis.  This ‘ordinary villager’ or adivasi who refuses to limit his democratic practices and struggle within the lines of command given by the state and its oppressive relations, at this point, emerges as the Maoist.  In the given conjuncture, the ‘Maoist’ is the articulation of the ordinary villager or adivasi as the political subject.

What Lalgarh showed is the interplay and interrelation between the ‘peaceful’ and ‘violent’ methods of struggle.  This means that it is not possible to separate the democratic struggle from the Maoist moment in it.  However the state as the defender of oppressive relations in its most generalized form, isolates the violent methods of the Maoists and tries to show it in isolation from the larger struggle of the people against oppression.  In a bid to force ‘ordinary villagers’ to restrict their democratic struggle and practices within the limits set by the state and its agencies, by the limits of parliamentary democracy, the state wants to target Maoists.  This is where the state and, perhaps not surprisingly, the democratic rights activists make the separation between ordinary villagers waiting to be uplifted and the violent Maoists exploiting their plight.

It is against such deft ideological operations that it needs to be pointed out that the ‘violent Maoist’ is actually an emergent quality of the democratic struggle and autonomous political practices of the ‘ordinary villager’ or adivasi in Lalgarh.  For, the moment you separate the two, you are back to enclave democracy, NGOisation.  It is here that we have to ask what it means to oppose the state for using the ‘bogey of Maoists’ in order to kill and repress ordinary villagers and ordinary civilians.  Now, the state does not always kill civilians; nor does it right away go after anyone who calls himself a Maoist (didn’t the Bengal government arrest Gour Chakraborty1 only at an opportune time?).  The state invariably kills, as we see in Lalgarh, when civilians, ordinary villagers, adivasis, enter into a symbiotic relationship with the Maoists; or when the Maoists enter into such a relationship with ordinary villagers.  That is, ‘ordinary villagers’ now are no ordinary villagers engaged in ‘participatory democracy’ or ‘rural empowerment’ but are challenging the very framework given by the state as the generalized expression of power relations; similarly the Maoists are not a small band of abstract believers in violence roaming the countryside recruiting children and poverty-stricken tribals for a Cause but are now engaged in a real struggle on the side of the masses.

Therefore the state does not really kill ordinary villagers in the name of killing Maoists; it kills those who are ‘supporters’ of the Maoists, those who are part of the larger, longer struggle which at some point or other assumes the name of Maoist.  To be sure there are armed Maoist combatants and unarmed civilians and one needs to differentiate the two.  However if the democratic struggle and the ‘violent’ struggle so often get intertwined and intersperse each other, if the Maoist moment is an integral moment of the overall struggle, then unarmed civilians are an integral part of the Maoist movement.

To say that the Maoist is the name for the articulation of the ordinary villager/adivasi as a political subject is to say that autonomous democratic practices do not close shop once the repressive state moves in, the form of struggle often alternates between ‘peaceful’ and ‘violent’ ones, and armed revolutionaries as much as unarmed civilians form part of the struggle.  Thus the resistance in Lalgarh was such that it was extremely difficult to sustain the separation between the Maoists and the adivasi population.

Benign Government

Even as there is mounting evidence that ordinary adivasis are part of Maoist politics in the area, the government today is forced to somehow act as though the adivasis are waiting to be won over through the right development policies, employment opportunities.  First security forces were sent in to flush out Maoists.  With hardly any encounters with the Maoists, the armed forces basically marched endlessly from one village to the next, across empty fields and villages whose male members had mostly fled.  It is anybody’s guess where the male members had escaped to!  After the ‘success’ of this ‘flushing out’ operation, sincere attempts are being made to reach out to the people there with all kinds of development plans, employment generation, food and medical provisions.  Under express directions form the chief minister, the secretaries from different ministers are posted in the different villages finding out the problems and needs of the people there.

One should not here doubt the sincerity of the CPIM to really follow the democratic rights perspective here in separating ordinary villagers and the Maoists.  In fact it declared that it wants to fight the Maoists politically, grudgingly accepting the centre’s ban on the Maoists.  So much so that the state government declared that it does not want to apply the UAPA, except in rare cases and that too the police will not have the authority to decide its use which will be decided by the government at the highest level.

Now all these welfarist proposals derive their rationale from the belief that ordinary villagers/adivasis stand opposed to the Maoists or got temporarily duped into supporting Maoists.  However in a total reversal of this separation theory, in Lalgarh ordinary villagers not only rejected the welfarist state but upheld the Maoists precisely in their supposed violent avatar.

That is, while, on the one hand, you had the case of Malati rejecting the most benign offer the state can ever make, the 0ffer of medical care to the mother and new-born baby, on the other hand, you had ‘ordinary civilians’ cheering and celebrating (ululate) the mass action at Dharampur, destroying the house of the CPIM leader Anuj Pandey.  Where does one draw the line between ordinary villagers and ‘violent Maoists’ when women who reject welfare measures offered by the state are more than participative in violent programmes of the Maoists?  The Hindustan Times reports from Dharampur, “A huge crowd gathered below in the area now under Section 144 lustily cheering each blow that fell on the white two-story house, quite out of place in this land of deprivation under Lalgarh police station.  By sundown, the hammers had chopped off the first floor, leaving behind a skeleton of what was a ‘posh’ house in the morning” (Hindustan Times, 16 June 2009).


Thus the approach of trying to defend the human rights of ‘ordinary civilians’ by arguing that they are not with the Maoists allows the state to justify repression of the Maoists in the name of defending the rights of these civilians.  Far from this separation being something which the state must be forced to adopt, the state in fact was seen in Lalgarh to enforce it.  Lalgarh showed that when the ‘ordinary civilians’ rejected the state even at its welfarist best and made it difficult to separate them from the Maoists, the state was forced to invent a technical separation (a particular dye mark on the body identifying a Maoist).  This however did not work.

Those on the left who support the democratic struggle in Lalgarh but deplore its supposed Maoist takeover, too, vociferously uphold this separation.  What this separation does is prevent the interplay between different forms of struggle, ‘peaceful’ and ‘violent’, and constrict it within the limits set by the decrepit structures of state power.  In the name of defending the democratic struggle from the authoritarian Maoists, it actually precludes the autonomous emergence of this struggle, a full-fledged political struggle against and beyond the limits set by state power.

Lalgarh showed that the Maoist is the name for the articulation of the democratic struggle which now refuses to give up even when it comes face to the face with the state exercising its monopoly of violence.  Opening a novel chapter in the interrelationship between the ‘Maoist party’ and mass resistance, the Maoist ‘take-over’ of the ‘democratic struggle’ was actually the latter’s articulation beyond the last limits set up by given structures of power, the refusal of the struggle to recoil and rescind in the face of this power, refusal to remain merely another enclosure of democracy, the site of ‘primitive accumulation’ for capital and its democratic claims.  It is a movement and a resistance where ordinary civilians no longer appear ordinary, and where the Maoists do not appear crudely vanguardist.  Lalgarh today helps us rethink the entire question of political subjectivity, party, and the masses — but above all of democracy and its concrete realisation through mass action.


1  Gour Chakraborty, a veteran and widely  respected Communist in his early 70s, had been a leading figure of the Ganapratirodh Mancha (Democratic Resistance Front), a coalition of left revolutionary groups in Kolkata.  On December 26, 2008 West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said that the government wished to deal with the Lalgarh rebellion “politically.”  Gour Chakraborty then announced that he had quit the Democratic Resistance Front to become the public spokesperson for the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in West Bengal, offered to meet with the chief minister, and said “we are giving the CPM a chance to deal with us politically.”  But despite efforts from other constituents of the Left Front in West Bengal, the leadership of the CPM refused to enter into political discussions with Chakraborty.  On June 23, 2009 the West Bengal government arrested Chakraborty, using the provisions of the draconian anti-terrorism Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, as he was leaving a talk show on a TV channel. [ed.]

Saroj Giri is Lecturer in Political Science, University of Delhi.